The Birth of a Nation hits theaters today, but it’s been in the news for nearly a year.
It made a show-stopping entrance at the Sundance Film Festival this January, earning raucous standing ovations and a titanic $17.5 million deal from Fox Searchlight. The film, dramatizing an 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, was immediately dubbed an Academy Award Best Picture front-runner—the perfect tonic to 2016’s still brewing #OscarsSoWhite controversy.
But then the film was hit with a controversy of its own. Nate Parker—the movie’s writer, director, producer and star, was besieged with old allegations that he’d raped a woman 17 years ago. Even though he’d been acquitted of those allegations, doubts lingered over his innocence. The blowback was severe, and it looked like Birth of a Nation’s Oscar hopes were done.
Then came last month’s uber-prestigious Toronto International Film Festival. Again, The Birth of a Nation was given an enthusiastic reception. Seems the movie may be once again in the mix.
We could talk about Birth of the Nation’s award aspirations from a lot of different angles: Is it artistically strong enough to merit major awards? Will its timely, resonant message be enough to push it into the conversation? Should voters punish the movie because of Parker’s uncertain past?
But here, I want to ask a different question: Can a Christian movie win an Oscar?
That Birth is a “Christian movie” shouldn’t be in doubt. Sure, it might not be distributed through the typical Christian channels, and its intended audience is far broader than a Christian evangelical subset (to which most Christian movies are marketed). But let’s call this movie what it is. Nate Parker is a Christian moviemaker, and in Birth he plays a deeply devout Christian character. The movie’s entire premise is built on the Bible—how slaveowners used Scripture to justify their evil actions, and how Turner eventually used that same Scripture to justify his bloody rebellion. The will of God is central to this movie, and it probably boasts more explicit Bible quotations than the year’s traditionally Christian “Christian movies” combined.
But Christian flicks aren’t nominated for Oscars these days, much less win them. Sure, 1981’s Chariots of Fire had an explicitly Christian character in it, but it was hardly a Christian movie. And it’s been a long time since movies like Ben Hur (1959) and A Man for All Seasons (1966) were taking home Best Picture statuettes.
The last “Christian movie” to be nominated for any sort of Academy honor was Alone Yet Not Alone, when it was temporarily in the running for Best Original Song of 2013 (sung by Joni Eareckson Tada). I say “temporarily,” since that nomination was rescinded when it was learned that Bruce Broughton, one of the song’s writers and an Academy’s bigwig, had been encouraging other members to nominate it behind the scenes.
Just as well, perhaps. While the song “Alone Yet Not Alone” was beautiful, the movie was terrible—perhaps not the best way to crack the seal on Christian films at the Oscars.
And that’s the thing. Ever since evangelical Christians launched their own moviemaking industry, their movies just haven’t been very good. God’s Not Dead may be evangelical catnip, but it’s hardly an artistic triumph. And even though we’ve seen a lot of improvement in Christian filmmaking—Risen and Miracles From Heaven are perfectly fine, watchable and even resonant movies—I don’t think most Christian moviemakers are primed to reserve their seats for the Dolby Theatre come Oscar night just yet.
Mainstream studios have, I think, appreciated the growing divide between secular and religious moviemaking. They understand there’s an audience for Christian films, which they sometimes cater to through their own boutique sub-studios. But they save their big bucks for would-be blockbusters, most of which are stripped of any reference to faith at all. And let’s face it: most movie auteurs these days—those that make powerful, personal movies and tend to make hay come Oscar night—aren’t, by and large, Christian. When Darren Aronofsky and Ridley Scott released Bible-based movies in 2014 (Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings, respectively), they were attracted to the stories, but had scant appreciation for the faith behind them.
But this year may be different.
Nate Parker isn’t the only director dealing with faith on screen this year. Mel Gibson’s directorial comeback Hacksaw Ridge (releasing Nov. 4) is filled with Christian content, and it too is earning critical and popular praise. Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited film Silence, about 17th-century missionaries who go to Japan despite knowing their work could get them killed, will also be coming out this November. None of those movies (including Birth of a Nation) are surefire Oscar nominees, but all three are in the conversation.
Throughout history, it seems that movements find strength in moments of weakness. Creativity thrives when under stress. Studies show that the United States is growing increasingly secular. And I wonder whether, paradoxically, that very secularization may open the door for a spiritual artistic renaissance.